[Update] On March 9, Hajiyev told his lawyer, that the messages leaked were fabricated, while some were more than ten years old. The imprisoned activist also said, he suspects his device was infected with Pegasus and this is how the authorities were able to extract the information they have been disseminating online via Telegram channels. Rufat Safarov, a rights defender who heads the campaign calling for Hajiyev’s release said the blackmail campaign targeting Hajiyev aimed to discredit the activist, according to reporting by Turan News Agency.
Az-Net Watch documented numerous examples when civic activists were targeted via Telegram channels in the past. Often these channels are public and share private information and/or intimate content of the person targeted. Not once, attempts to investigate how the leaked data made it into these channels were successful. While targeted activists suspect the information was leaked by officials these suspicions were often either dismissed or unaddressed. So it was not at all surprising that yet another blackmail campaign has been making rounds on Telegram.
The channel originally called “Baktiyar’s exposure” was first discovered on February 24. Since then, the channel has been renamed to “Bakhtiyar Hajiyev Expose.” The first channel shared Hajiyev’s intimate photographs. The new one has videos of his correspondence with women. By the time this story was revisited AIW counted at least six different Telegram channels targeting Hajiyev.
His friends and colleagues suspect that these were extracted from his mobile device. Hajiyev currently is in administrative detention. He was arrested on December 9 and originally sentenced to 50 days in administrative detention. Since then, his detention period has been extended, most recently on February 23, 2023, by another two months. Meanwhile, the Interior Ministry denied allegations that they were somehow involved in the information being leaked.
According to reporting by Turan News Agency, the Ministry of Interior attempted to frame Hajiyev, alleging, it was the activist who leaked this information online. However that is impossible, says Rufat Safarov, the head of the Defense Line initiative that was set up shortly after Hajiyev’s arrest. Speaking to Turan News Agency, Safarov said, “Bakhtiyar has been behind bars since December. How could he possibly distribute this information online? His personal information was stolen and leaked purposefully to discredit him.”
In October of last year, the founder of Az-Net Watch, co-authored this story for IWPR explaining how Telegram is being used in Azerbaijan. “In Azerbaijan, the app has become a nexus for hate speech, propaganda, and the repression of dissent. In March 2021, multiple Telegram groups were identified in Azerbaijan sharing sex tapes and nude photographs of women. Among the victims were journalists, civic activists, and female family members of exiled political activists as well as ordinary women. The groups and pictures were reported to Telegram, but it took weeks before they were taken down. The damage to the women targeted was done. The channels shared sensitive videos of journalist Fatima Movlamli, the sister of exiled dissident blogger Mahammad Mirzali, civic activist Narmin Shahmarzade and Gunel Hasanli, daughter of opposition party leader Jamil Hasanli.”
Telegram’s “content moderation” problems
In 2021, Telegram’s founder Pavel Durov in a post on his channel justified why the platform won’t censor misinformation: “In my 20 years of managing discussion platforms, I noticed that conspiracy theories only strengthen each time their content is removed by moderators.” Meanwhile, the platform’s Vice President Ilya Perekopsky boasted about the platform’s neutrality when it came to content moderation, and specifically misinformation: “we just think people should have their opinion, right? If they disagree they can disagree. They can use telegram to express their opinions. From our side, we always stay neutral.”
In the case of imprisoned Hajiyev, this lax approach to content moderation or lack thereof has already caused significant damage to his reputation but it has also revealed the poor editing and fabrication skills of the people behind this blackmail campaign. Azerbaijani journalist Ulviyya Ali, shared the screenshots from the videos of chat conversations Hajiyev allegedly had with women, which were shared in some of the Telegram channels targeting Hajiyev.
Activists in Azerbaijan also pointed out that it is not Hajiyev’s reputation that is placed on the line with this blackmail campaign, but the women too, whose photographs are shared in the absence of their consent. Last year BBC published this investigation about the use of the platform in targeting women specifically “to harass, shame and blackmail them on a massive scale.” Gulnara Mehdiyeva, a feminist activist who has been ttargeted herself in the past, said in a Facebook post on February 28, “Terrible things are happening in the country. The government, which is responsible for protecting the safety of citizens, deliberately and knowingly wants to make those women victims of suicide or murder.” Two years ago, Mehdiyeva was targeted in a video shared via Facebook, containing a series of leaked private audio messages, that were extracted from Mehdiyeva’s social media accounts and emails. In a February 28 Facebook post, Mehdiyeva also wrote that not only faces of these women were not blurred but the perpetrators of the blackmail campaign also shared the names of the women and at least in one correspondence leaked, the home address of one woman. One of the women whose identity has been exposed in this campaign, was Tunay Aliyeva, an actress and model who said this blackmail campaign was a “cybercrime and invasion of people’s privacy.” In a letter addressed to the First Lady and the First Vice President Mehriban Aliyev, the actress asked that the First Lady personally stepped in, as a woman and a mother herself, in order to put an end to this “abomination.”
At the time of writing this update, at least six groups were still active on Telegram. A source told AIW that one of the women had to escape her family after the latter learned of what has happened. The woman’s brother is allegedly after her to clean the family’s reputation.